by Anat Rubin, Marshall Project
In the desert city of Indio, California halfway between Los Angeles and the Arizona border, a small monument to the state’s prison downsizing experiment is materializing in a shopping center storefront, where former felons will soon have access to health screenings, substance-abuse treatment, job training, therapy and probation officers who look and sound more like social workers than law enforcement officials.
Less than a mile away, a far more ambitious project is taking shape. Across from the local courthouse, workers will soon break ground on a massive expansion of a county jail, a renovation that will ultimately more than quadruple its size from 353 to 1,626 beds. It’s the first of several jail expansions planned in Riverside County, where the local sheriff has called for 10,000 new jail beds in the next thirteen years.
Both projects are part of the effort California orefficials call “realignment” – a sweeping initiative to reduce the overcrowding of state prisons by turning over responsibility for non-violent offenders to the counties from which they came.
The policy, which has helped state prisons shed tens of thousands of prisoners, is also fueling a seemingly contradictory effort to re-incarcerate many of them in county jails.
Across the state, county officials are laying claim to billions in state funding to refurbish old jails and build new ones. The remarkable boom in jail construction casts a long shadow over a central promise of prison downsizing: that the policy would encourage counties to invest in the types of stabilizing services that might end the cycle of incarceration.
But it seems the spirit of reform was overtaken by California’s urgent need to get support from counties as it scrambled to meet court-ordered prison population goals. To ease the process, the state ponied up billions of dollars and gave local officials carte blanche on how to spend their share.
So far the lion’s share of the money has paid for shoring up enforcement, while re-entry services and alternatives to incarceration are getting short shrift.
Local is Better
The nation’s most ambitious prison downsizing was sold to the public with the same language used to promote sustainable food and urban farming: “Local is Better.” That was the phrase on the lips of California officials as they hurriedly transferred control for non-violent offenders – along with significant funding – from the state to its 58 counties.
People convicted of most low-level crimes would now serve their time in local jails or under community supervision, and non-violent offenders leaving state prison would be supervised not by state parole agents but by probation departments in the counties where they were convicted.
Realignment was designed to satisfy a United States Supreme Court order forcing the state to drastically reduce the number of prisoners in its prison system, a network of severely overcrowded facilities where prisoners slept triple-bunked in gymnasiums, where the suicide rate was 80 percent higher than the nationwide prisoner average, and where a lack of even the most basic medical and mental health care led to an average of one unnecessary death per week.
Since the policy went into effect in October 2011, jail populations have increased by one prisoner for every three no longer in state prison, and California’s crime rate has continued its long-term downward trend. Although the number of people behind bars will likely change as new and expanded jails begin accepting prisoners, many see the decrease in both incarceration and crime as an early success.
But the policy was also supposed to address the source of overcrowding by encouraging counties to find alternatives to incarceration and to provide re-entry services to keep people out of prisons and jails.
That’s what probation service centers like the one planned in Indio are designed to do. Thirty-eight counties have at least one of these so-called day reporting centers – a direct outgrowth of realignment.
But the scale of these projects pales in comparison to the counties’ jail construction plans.
Twenty-eight counties are leveraging $1.7 billion in state grants to build and expand 35 jails. These projects, in various stages of design and construction, will initially add about 12,000 jail beds in the state, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. But many of the new jails are designed to accommodate future expansions that could significantly increase their capacity.
While early rounds of jail construction funding were intended to increase capacity, later rounds are aimed at improving the counties’ ability to provide treatment and program spaces, and not at increasing the number of beds, said Brandon Martin of the Public Policy Institute.
“But it will ultimately be up to the county whether they want to fill these spaces with bunk beds,” he said.
Riverside received $100 million to expand the Indio jail, which will cost more than $330 million to complete. The state recently made available another $500 million to subsidize additional jail projects, and Riverside officials said they plan to apply for an additional $80 million to expand another jail.
“The purpose was to lower the number of incarcerated people, but it seems somehow that got lost in the translation,” said Vonya Quarles, a Riverside attorney and director of a local housing program for formerly incarcerated people. “They are not going to let those beds stay empty.”
Riverside County is a stretch of Southern California desert extending from just east of Los Angeles County, past Palm Springs and Joshua Tree National Park, all the way to the Arizona border. The county’s 2.3 million people are spread out over 7,300 square miles, in towns marked by warehouses, tract-home communities and strip malls.
This is not the California of postcards and bears little resemblance to the political caricature of the Golden State, that solidly blue voting block anchored by San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Although the violent crime rate in Riverside is lower than the state average, Riverside prosecutors and judges have for decades sent a disproportionately high percentage of offenders to state prison. As a result, prison downsizing had a more immediate impact here than it did in counties that were already keeping their low-level offenders in local jails. There was a cascade of prisoners down to the county’s five jails, which were already under a federal court order to relieve overcrowding, forcing thousands of early releases.
“We were hemorrhaging people out of our jails,” said Riverside District Attorney Michael Hestrin.
After realignment, local officials, led by the sheriff, publicized the number of early releases to garner public support for the jail expansion. The not so subtle suggestion was that tens of thousands of criminals were flooding Riverside County’s communities, and that a crime wave was inevitable.
During the first three years of realignment, the number of prisoners that counties had to release early from local jails because of space constraints increased by 37 percent across the state.
But thanks in large part to a 2014 voter-approved measure that reduced six different felonies – among them drug possession – to misdemeanors, the number of early releases is now decreasing rapidly.
The measure, known as Proposition 47, was applied retroactively, meaning thousands of people serving time in prisons and jails are now eligible for resentencing, and thousands more have already been released. The new law helped the state reach its court-ordered prison population goal, and has acted as a release valve for counties, which are reporting a substantial drop in jail populations. Many of the felonies covered by realignment – those low-level crimes that no longer warrant state prison – are now misdemeanors that may not even require county jail.
But that hasn’t halted the jail construction plans.
Riverside County operates five jails with a total of 3,900 beds, and the Sheriff has said he’s looking to more than triple that number in the next 13 years.
“Our bed capacity is our greatest deterrent,” said Assistant Sheriff Jerry Gutierrez. “There needs to be a hammer.”
Sheriff’s departments across the state are scrambling to hire thousands of deputies to staff the new jails, and their salaries and benefits threaten to sap local budgets, especially in counties that have been struggling with budget deficits for years.
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department recently hosted its fourth job fair to staff the expanded Indio jail. The department is looking for 400 additional deputies for the new facility, originally slated to open in 2016, and more to enhance enforcement efforts on the street.
Close to a quarter of Riverside’s jail beds are now occupied by people the county used to send to state prison. Three years ago, these jails held prisoners awaiting trial or doing short time for misdemeanors. But the vast majority of Riverside’s jail beds – around 70 percent – are still occupied by people who haven’t been sentenced yet and can’t afford their bail.
Even before prison downsizing began, county jails were unable to provide adequate care. Years of budget deficits worsened conditions in the already decrepit network of local jails across the state. Now that the jails are tasked with holding some prisoners for longer stretches, these problems have become more pronounced.
“We get so many letters from people in the jails who say ‘I just need to get upstate,’ which is what they call state prison. ‘I gotta get my meds, I gotta see a doctor.’” said Sara Norman of the Prison Law Office, which represented state prisoners in the litigation that led to realignment.
Norman’s group has since sued Riverside County as well, for failing to provide critical medical services to prisoners.
“At one time there was one doctor, part time, for 4,000 people in all five jail facilitates,” she said. “Things have gotten better since then, but conditions are still horrible.”
Now the county wants to remedy the situation by building better jails. Plans for the Indio jail include a medical unit, special housing for mentally ill prisoners, and classrooms to accommodate training and rehabilitative services.
This is a statewide trend, with county jail construction proposals promising kinder jails with community spaces, “gender responsive” jails that will cater to the needs of women, medical jails and prisons that will function like hospitals, and “re-entry hubs” within jails that would transition prisoners to life outside.
But there is disagreement about whether these types of services can be provided effectively behind bars, in an environment intended to punish.
In 2013, the state opened what it called the nation’s largest medical prison, with the capacity to house 1,700 of its sickest prisoners in a hospital-like setting. The 1.2 million square-foot facility, which cost $839 million, was designed to address shortfalls in medical and mental health services that had plagued California prisons for decades, and that eventually led to the court-ordered downsizing. Just months after it opened it was forced to halt admissions because of inadequate staffing, a lack of appropriate medical supplies and poor care.
The Riverside Department of Mental Health is hiring 39 clinicians to staff the new Indio jail, including four or five psychiatrists, said Deborah Johnson, the department’s deputy director.
Johnson said there is a need for better mental health services behind bars and says the old, cramped facilities make it difficult, if not impossible, to provide services. But those 39 clinicians, she said, “could better provide these services outside.”
The vast majority of the new state funding that’s gone to treatment and services in Riverside – around 15 percent of the county’s total realignment budget – has been used to bolster services inside the jails. Johnson said the increase in services tied to incarceration came just as state funding for other substance abuse programs was drying up.
The Department of Mental Health estimates the number of clients coming in through the criminal justice system has increased tenfold. If realignment was supposed to divert people with mental illness away from that system, there is little evidence of that in Riverside so far.
Aside from the $2.2 billion in funds earmarked for jail construction, the state has allocated more than $3 billion to the counties – and will disperse billions more in the coming years – to help manage the cost of supervising and providing services for the new group of offenders now in their care. The state encouraged counties to invest those funds in community-based alternatives to incarceration, but didn’t mandate it.
“The governor had to give [the counties] something to go along with it,” said Barry Krisberg, a University of California, Berkeley criminologist. “And that was the bargain: Leave us alone.”
Counties that had a robust network of housing and services – most notably in the San Francisco Bay Area – have invested more of their realignment funding in enhancing those resources. But in many California counties, most of the funding was used to expand the local criminal justice system.
In Riverside, much of the responsibility for expanding services has fallen to the county’s probation department, a previously overlooked agency once tasked with little more than sending violators back to prisons and jails.
“Probation was an underfunded system for so many years, and that’s part of what contributed to the prison system’s growth – there were no alternatives in the community,” said Linda Penner, a former probation chief and director of the state board overseeing realignment funding and implementation.
Probation departments expanded to deal with those low-level offenders coming home from state prison, as well as those convicted of new crimes whose sentences were “split” to allow them to serve part of their time at home, under supervision – a key realignment strategy intended to keep the jails from overflowing.
Community activists see the growth in probation as an expansion of law enforcement. But in counties like Riverside, probation is also providing one of the few alternatives to incarceration.
The Riverside probation department supervises 19,000 people, around 3,000 of them as a direct result of prison downsizing. An estimated two-thirds need substance abuse or mental health services. The department operates two day reporting centers offering comprehensive services, and the Indio center will be the third. Still, these services will remain out of reach for many.
Some fifteen percent of Riverside’s realigned probationers are homeless. The department is providing 79 short-term beds for this population, in a hastily-constructed network of emergency shelters and sober living homes spread throughout the county.
“We didn’t do housing before realignment,” said Mark Hake, the county’s probation chief. “We had to start all that from scratch.”
Among Riverside’s law enforcement officials, Hake is the most enthusiastic about realignment’s potential. Sheriffs across the state initially opposed the policy, and the governor gave the probation chiefs the most important role in its implementation. Each county’s probation chief now heads a local board that includes the sheriff, the district attorney, the public defender and the Department of Mental Health. Even the board’s less enthusiastic members say realignment’s greatest legacy in Riverside is that it forced all these key players to sit around the table and talk.
“Frankly, local is better,” Hake said. “Three years later, the place doesn’t look too much worse off.”
But if the jail construction sites across the state are any indication, it seems that, for now, everyone is hedging their bets.
This article was originally published on July 2, 2015 by The Marshall Project (www.themarshallproject.org), an independent news organization that reports on criminal justice-related issues. It is reprinted with permission, with minor edits.
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